IoT is not dumb
January 15, 2017  

Wired is out with an article mocking the Internet of Things: The Dumb ‘Smart’ Gear That Someone’s Gonna Hack in 2017. I see a lot of people, particularly people in computer security, who think that IoT devices are dumb, and foolishly insecure.

But IoT is not dumb. I’ve already made the case for the connected lightbulb, and all of the examples that Wired mocks also deserve a defense.

U by Moen Showerhead

The U by Moen uses its Wi-Fi connection to let you start your shower from bed, the goal being that the water will be warm by the time you arrive. Even if you set aside the water waste issues, it’s maybe best keep the internet out of the bathroom when possible.

First of all, showers that allow you to set the water temperature are great, they’re a big advance over the typical hot/cold taps. I’m sure that we’ve all been literally burned by shower water when someone flushes a toilet, and we’ve all wasted time and water warming up the shower on a cold morning. With good temperature control, you set it, turn it on, and it tells you when it’s ready so you don’t waste time and water.

A connected shower could do a lot more. It could tell you how much water is being used, it could estimate heating and water costs, it could shut itself off if you leave it on, it could turn off the shower exhaust when the steam has cleared. Plumbing as a field has a lot of room for innovation.

Simplehuman Wi-Fi Trash Can

Not coming out until May, Simplehuman’s voice-activated, Wi-Fi trash can open or close when you tell it to, and pairs with an app to help you order more trash bags when you’ve run out.

Trash is smelly and a health hazard so I want a can with a lid (to keep in the smells) that opens by itself (so I don’t have to touch it). Once it has electricity it might as well have a network connection and a sensor to report when it’s full. Consider an office building with a hundred trash cans: it would be very useful for building maintenance to know when a can fills up. Garbage cans should be integrated with paper towel dispensers that tell maintenance when they are out of paper.

Kérastase Hair Coach

A collaboration between beauty company L’Oreal and generally solid tech upstart Withings, this Wi-Fi hair brush (yes, you read that correctly) has an onboard microphone (again, yep) that listens to hair as you brush to identify hair issues. Simultaneously, various sensors count brush strokes, measure brushing patterns, and determine how much pressure you’re applying to your scalp. To think, we somehow survived this long without.

Hair is like a canary in a coal mine when it comes to health issues. Everything that you take into your body ends up in your hair (hence the hair test for drugs). This particular brush may not have medical sensors but the potential is there.

Sunflower Smart Patio Umbrella

Technically not available until 2018, but demonstrated last week, the Sunflower smart patio umbrella has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a security camera, integrated lighting, and various sensors, all with the aim of moving to block the sun wherever it is in the sky.

The sun moves and therefore I move when I’m sitting outside. Not sure what the question is here. Also Wi-Fi is weak away from the house so I’d be happy for a boost, and if there’s electricity there might as well be a USB outlet. I wish it had a speaker and microphone so I could tell my kids to bring me some tasty refreshments from inside.

Velux Active Smart Window

Working in concert with smart home sensor company Netatmo, Velux’s smart windows automatically open when the air quality inside is bad, close when it’s too cold outside, and are otherwise responsive to internal and external conditions. Just hope they don’t get stalled out on a firmware update when a storm’s brewing.

Please, please, please let me buy this today! This is the best product of the bunch.

Here in the United States we build extremely stupid houses and our windows are the worst in the world. Almost every house I see going up in my neighborhood uses modern double hung (sash) windows, the very dumbest kind of window:

Here you see that the window opens by lifting the bottom half up (or pulling the top half down). What holds the window up when you open it? In an old-style sash window, there are counterweights in the wall next to the window that hold it up. They’re great.

A modern design eliminates these counterweights, and instead essentially holds the window up by friction. In other words, these windows are hard to open and close. I have 36 of these windows in my house, and I’m the only person in my household that can open and close the windows!

If I can open the windows in my house I can avoid using air conditioning and I can breath fresh air. But to do that, I need to open and close all the windows in the house. I can’t just open one window, I need air to flow through the house. If the house is well designed, cool air will enter from ground-level windows and hot air will exit from the top. One side of the house is typically cooler, so I need windows open on both sides to get a cross breeze.

Even if I use air conditioning, there’s a “thermal inversion” in the evening, when it suddenly cools. If you have a whole-house fan you can open the windows on the ground floor and use the fan to quickly exhaust hot air and draw in cool air in the evening, so you can turn off your air conditioning at night.

With 36 windows, I am simply not going to go around my house all day adjusting the windows for efficiency, even though this is costing me a lot of money. And if it starts to rain, running up and down three stories to close the windows is a real hassle.

What is needed are windows that can open and close by remote control, automatically. They should be under the control of the thermostat and may need input from the weather report. In short, you need connected windows.

What about security?

Are all of these devices doomed to be hacked? Is a firmware update going to make them inoperable at a critical moment?

If so, then all of us in computer security have failed. The internet can meaningfully enhance ordinary consumer appliances, and it is our job to make that secure. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.